Rooted in our values, co-ops are innovating for the future

In 2023, we will focus on how—because of our shared values—we have an opportunity to innovate in unique ways.

As has become our tradition during the first week of the New Year, we’re sharing a message focused on the future of the cooperative community.

NCBA CLUSA’s mission and vision provide us an opportunity to look forward while staying rooted in our cooperative identity. Our vision is to enable more people to use cooperatives to build a more inclusive economy. We often say that co-ops are the right vehicle for this work because co-ops are values-driven businesses. In 2023, we will focus on how—because of our shared values—we have an opportunity to innovate in ways not truly available to other types of entities. We do this by leaning into our shared cooperative values—those ideals agreed upon by the global cooperative community that underpin our cooperative identity.

This focus on the cooperative values comes during a moment when much of the non-co-op business community is grasping for ways to communicate and measure their impact beyond creating wealth for outside investors. Sometimes known as ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) goals, or Stakeholder Capitalism, this dynamic has sparked controversy within both investment circles and the policy realm as people argue that investor-owned businesses cannot twist themselves into agents for societal change, while others decry such efforts as an inappropriate use of investor-owned entities. As co-ops, we stand apart from this tussle among the corporate bigwigs. Our values make clear that co-ops fully consider multiple stakeholders including people as individuals, cooperative members, and the broader community. We do not see our work as a zero-sum game; rather co-ops are vehicles for economic and societal transformation that truly consider a broader set of stakeholders.

Further, the cooperative values could not be timelier as the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) examines our shared cooperative identity, considering whether actions need to be taken to refresh, renew, and protect that identity in today’s context. For an update on this global conversation, see a recent webinar focused on key findings from a global survey. As a co-op community in the U.S., we have focused on the cooperative identity’s relationship with Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), including a board resolution making clear that DEI should be better understood and expressed in the Cooperative Identity, and actively engaging in ICA’s work to reexamine the cooperative identity. All of this work should be rooted in our cooperative values.

We look forward to supporting the cooperative community in 2023 and beyond by building on our successes in 2022, including advocacy wins in both policy and new resources; new membership offerings including the Co-op Circle and work on the Principle 6 Initiative; obtaining support for major new co-op development projects globally and domestically; and producing the Co-op IMPACT Conference with excellent content and strong in-person attendance.

Let’s consider the six cooperative values that ICA members adopted in 1995 as part of the Statement on Cooperative Identity: self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. These cooperative values are complemented by the four ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others. As stated in the December 2021 ICA Discussion paper on the Cooperative Identity: “Basic cooperative values are general norms that cooperatives and their members, leaders and staff are expected to share and that should guide their thoughts and actions. The values affirm what is the right thing to do. The description of cooperative and ethical values in the ICA’s Statement on the Cooperative Identity seeks to engage the heart, conscience, and loyalty of current and future cooperative members.” Ian MacPherson, who led the work that culminated in the 1995 Statement on Cooperative Identity, argued that the values are more permanent than the 7 Cooperative Principles, which have been updated every 30 or so years for the last century. 

Notice the dynamic within the values connecting the individual, the co-op, and the community. Self-help and self-responsibility focus on the duty of the individual and the co-op to solve their own problems and take responsibility for the actions and success of the co-op. Democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity suggest a duty and responsibility in relation to the members within the co-op itself.  And finally, values such as social responsibility and caring for others make it clear that co-op members and the co-ops themselves have a duty to the broader community.

Now let’s consider the concept of innovation. While much of the business community tends to view innovation exclusively as a driver of efficiencies and profit, the co-op community needs to think more broadly. We need to think about innovation in the context of our cooperative values. How do we make new connections so that more people can help themselves and their co-ops (self-help and self-responsibility)? What new communication and community organizing tactics can we use to ensure greater equity? What new technologies can be employed to increase democratic participation in the co-op? We need to think creatively about how the values apply to today’s cooperative community. For example, when considering how co-ops can approach “inclusion,” one might point to the values of equity and self-help: inclusion is about providing people the genuine opportunity to contribute to their own well-being and that of the co-op, no matter their circumstance in life.

As we think about how to innovate in the context of the cooperative values, we need to understand the economic and societal dynamics in today’s context and for the future. Consider these key dynamics: a continued and deepening interest in creating a more inclusive, equitable society; significant new policy, resources and market signals around addressing climate change; and the proliferation of information technology that fundamentally changes the way workers and consumers engage in the economy.

The key for cooperators in 2023 is how to innovate around these dynamics while remaining rooted to the values.

The key for cooperators in 2023 is how to innovate around these dynamics while remaining rooted to the values. What could this look like? Here are a few examples:

Cooperatives and Platforms

As technology and data use continue to evolve in ways that more deeply infiltrate our lives, cooperative leaders can pursue strategies that look to the cooperative identity for ways to organize businesses that benefit members and the community within the platform economy. For example, the Drivers Cooperative was established as a direct alternative to more extractive models in the ride-hailing sector so that the drivers own, control and ultimately benefit from their business. The Drivers Cooperative now includes thousands of drivers in New York City and is in the process of expanding to other cities. One of the key distinctions of the Drivers Cooperative versus services such as Uber is that the drivers can see how the cooperative conducts its finances including how the drivers are paid. This innovative use of cooperatives within the evolving technology landscape is a great example of drivers helping themselves, using democracy and demonstrating openness—all cooperative values. Further, the Drivers Cooperative has partnered with a financial cooperative, Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union, for member financing in an express example of the 6th Cooperative Principle (cooperation among cooperatives) and the value of solidarity.

Cooperatives and Financial Well-being for All

In another example, the credit union community is focused on bringing financial well-being for all. The community through the National Credit Union Foundation is hearkening back to credit union’s original purpose of ensuring that everyone has access to reliable, affordable financial services. And they are ensuring that more people have access to the latest financial technology tools. By tuning in to their members’ needs, creating strategies and acting on those strategies, these member-owned community financial institutions live out the cooperative values of self-help, equity and solidarity. And credit unions deliver for those families that need it most, with car loans that typically save consumers $1,000 and more than 50% of credit unions focusing on serving low-income individuals.

Cooperatives and Climate

As more people are looking to mitigate the impacts of climate change, households and businesses need to work together to make the greatest impact and to ensure that local communities have control and capture benefits of innovation. Cooperatives are the perfect vehicle—whether through established co-ops, such as the vast network of rural electric cooperatives, or new cooperatives creating innovative member-centric strategies. For example, the farmer co-op Organic Valley is partnering with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on a project to show how small farmers can reduce the amount of greenhouse gases while ensuring that the benefits go directly to farmers—as opposed to an offset scheme that creates profit for outside investors and stakeholders. This innovation demonstrates the values of self-responsibility, equity and social responsibility. In another example, NCBA CLUSA’s new USDA-funded Puerto Rico Climate Smart Commodities project will equip thousands of underserved farmers with the tools they need to advance climate goals while preserving their way of life and earning a living wage.

Coupled with innovation, co-ops are poised to transform the way we do business and build communities—but only if we stay true to our identity and rooted in our values.

To move the needle on climate, financial well-being for all—or any of the other challenges we face—households and businesses will need intermediaries that are sophisticated, trusted and put communities at the center of their strategies. Co-ops are the perfect vehicle for this type of innovation. From climate-smart agriculture to more affordable access to critical financial services, cooperatives continue to provide answers to major global challenges. Coupled with innovation, co-ops are poised to transform the way we do business and build communities—but only if we stay true to our identity and rooted in our values.

How you can get involved

We’re looking forward to innovating with you in the year ahead! A great way to plug into NCBA CLUSA’s work is to join Co-op Circle. We created Co-op Circle for NCBA CLUSA members and stakeholders to share ideas, get feedback and be part of engaging discussions, events and more. Co-op Circle was built to empower the co-op community to connect and build true “cooperation among cooperatives.” When you join NCBA CLUSA, you’ll receive exclusive access to our Co-op Circle Common Room, Knowledge Drop, Small Groups, Events and the full support of our NCBA CLUSA team and volunteers.

Sign up today!


—Doug O’Brien is president and CEO of NCBA CLUSA, where he works with the cooperative community to deepen its impact on the economy. 


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